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Creating a sustainable digital ecology

The Asian Regional Network Conference of the United Nations ICT Task Force was held on 25 April 2002 in New Delhi. The meeting brought together over 200 key government, private sector, and academic leaders from China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan and UK to discuss ICT for development in Asia, and to explore new high-technologies that can significantly impact the lives of the underprivileged and underserved. The event was sponsored by Media Lab Asia, the UN ICT Task Force, NASSCOM, TiE, CII, MAIT, and the Ministry of Communications Information Technology, Government of India.

The conference was organised by Media Lab Asia and the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Government of India and focused specifically on private sector and academia’s involvement in developing world-class technologies that will make a difference. Among the many dignitaries were Chief Guest Shri Pramod Mahajan, Hon’ble Minister of Communications & Information Technology and Parliamentary Affairs, Government of India, Guest of Honor Dr. MA Songde, Hon’ble Vice Minister, Ministry of Science and Technology, People’s Republic of China, Shri Rajeeva Ratna Shah, Secretary Department of IT, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Government of India, Dr. Brenda McSweeney, UN Resident Co-ordinator, India and Prof. Alex Pentland of MIT. The People’s Republic of China sent a strong delegation composed of experts from government, industry, and academia. The UN ICT Task Force Asian Regional Network held a meeting in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China during the period 27-29 March 2002, in which government officials from 15 countries built a consensus on using ICT for development. Several key private sector leaders were joined by Media Lab Asia, MIT Media Lab and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

The United Nations ICT Task Force was launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 20 November, 2001, to help harness the power of information and communication technologies for advancing the internationally agreed development goals of the Millennium Declaration, particularly halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. To this end, it serves as a bridge between the ICT and development communities and examines how to use ICT to leverage and enhance development programmes and projects. The Task Force provides a global forum for integrating ICT into development programmes and for addressing such issues as strategy, infrastructure, enterprise, human capacity, content, applications, and smart partnerships. The Task Force helps coordinate, mobilise and link existing and new public and private resources, at national, regional, and global levels, to comprehensively address the issues of connectivity, capacity, and content with a view to promoting universal, affordable, and meaningful access to ICT, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged. Opportunities for preventing, reducing and eliminating gender disparities in participation in the ICT sector, and in access to and use of ICT for development are being pro-actively identified.

The Media Lab Asia (MLAsia) is an innovative and pioneering partnership between the widely reputed MIT Media Lab USA, and the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, India. MLAsia is registered as a not-for-profit company, and Shri Pramod Mahajan, Hon’ble Minister for Communications & Information Technology and Parliamentary Affairs, chairs its Board. Dr. Nicholas Negroponte, Founder and Chairman of MIT Media Lab, is MLAsia’s Vice Chairman. MLAsia’s board also includes Prof. Alex Pentland of MIT, Shri Rajeeva Ratna Shah, Secretary Department of Information Technology, Government of India, Shri V.Ranganathan, Chief Secretary, Government of Maharashtra, Shri F.C.Kohli of TCS, Shri Azim Premji, Chairman of WIPRO and Shri N.R.Narayana Murthy, Chairman of Infosys.

In keeping with its mandate, MLAsia proposes to concentrate on low cost devices, connectivity, and local language content, through three precompetitive industrial consortia called Bits for All, Tomorrow’s Tools, and The World Computer:

Bits for All focuses on how to bring digitally enabled services to everyone on earth.

Tomorrow’s Tools aims at translating the vision of fine-grain, pervasive computing to rural communities.

World Computer is developing a computer for the educationally and socially disadvantaged, and for communities.

These three technical themes come together in a fourth initiative that seeks to find a synergetic combination of technology with societal need, called Digital Village.

Digital Village attempts to realise Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a sustainable village through culturally appropriate uses of new world class technologies. Our goal is to create a sustainable digital ecology that maintains traditional values and community while opening economic and expressive opportunities.

Dr. Brenda Gael McSweeney – UN Resident Co-ordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Shri MA Songde – Hon. Vice Minister, Ministry of Science & Technology, Peoples Republic of China, Shri Pramod Mahajan – Hon. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Communications & Information Technology, Government of India, Shri Rajeeva Ratna Shah – Secretary, Department of IT, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Government of India, Prof. Alex (Sandy) Pentland – Director, Media Lab Asia (L to R)
These ideas will be given a practical shape in two ways: through a network of decentralized research hubs that are generating and vetting new concepts in these areas, and through precompetitive industrial consortia that will focus on the production of concrete, short-term results.

Simultaneously, an exhibition cum demonstration of ongoing projects initiated and supported by MLAsia showcasing innovative applications of ICT for socio-economic development was organized. Participants included the MLAsia research hubs/labs at IIT Kanpur, IIT Bombay and IIT Khargpur and MLAsia research partners like JIVA, and Center for Spatial Database Management Systems. Demonstrations were on handheld computers, low cost wireless communication devices, user interfaces for illiterates and speech interfaces in Indian languages. Several key leaders from the government, industry, and academia expressed their deep appreciation of this effort. They found the sessions both helpful and stimulating, and thanked the action-oriented panelists for their meaningful insights. In view of the convergence of objectives between the various stakeholders, the industry and government leaders committed their unconditional support to the efforts of UN ICT Task Force Asia Regional Network, and Media Lab Asia. The participants decided that all stakeholders will work closely together in the coming months to develop and deploy new path-breaking technologies that will profoundly impact the lives of the underprivileged and underserved communities of Asia.

First open-source GIS software for palmtops

At the Elitex exhibition organised by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Government of India, Media Lab Asia launched the world’s first open-source GIS software for handheld computers. The software, GramChitra, has been developed in collaboration with research partner, Centre for Spatial Database Management and Solutions (CSDMS). GIS software enables creation, storage, editing, and accessing of map related databases for visually intuitive and effective decision making. GramChitra has been developed on the popular Linux operating system to serve as a cost effective means of enabling community level resource management. The software has vast potential applications in areas like census data collection, revenue maps, block-and panchayat level planning for water wells, tube wells, epidemiological data collection for rural healthcare, etc. Typically, the cost of GIS software on PC starts at around Rs. 65,000 and goes up to Rs. 4-5 lakh. Media Lab Asia has decided to release GramChitra free of cost. The software can be downloaded from https://www.csdms.org/gramchitra.

Speaking at the release of the software, Prof Alex Pentland, Director, Media Lab in Asia said that GIS software can serve as a fundamental tool for planning at all levels. “We developed GramChitra on the open-source platform to ensure that this technology can be used at the grassroots level for planning.”

Ravi Gupta, Director CSDMS said that GIS software like GramChitra is an example of how IT can be used to help the masses. “Maps can be an effective way to collect data and simultaneously display results. We have worked with village youths and school children to bring about awareness of the utility of maps using the GramChitra software.”

Media lab Asia has also integrated GPS with the GramChitra GIS Software. Users can automatically incorporate on a map, the date, time, location where the data is captured. In future, GramChitra’s capabilities will be extended to support data collection using low cost sensors for water and soil analysis, livestock management, planning, etc. https://www.csdms.org/